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If you haven’t caught up yet and read the first half of Carrie’s wonderful interview with Paul Noonan of Bell X1, go here. Then dive right in to part 2 below…
I read through the liner notes for the album, and they’re sort of non-specific about who does what, who plays what, who wrote what. Is that deliberate, are you trying to create sort of a band effect there?
Yeah, we’ve never really gotten into who played triangle in the third verse and stuff like that. And we’ve always walked instruments a lot as well, like Dave Geraghty plays a lot of drums, most of the drums on this record. You know we’ve, he and I would have traded a lot of the piano and guitar work. Thomas played a lot of piano, I played some drums. Dominic, the rock, still played bass and bass only, so he’s, I suppose, the fulcrum about which it all swings.
(laughing) He does what he’s good at doing. But I did see in the liner notes that you have a singer, a background singer, called Hannah Cohen.
That’s right, yes. Yeah, we loved her first record, and she came down for a few days, she’s a friend of Peter’s, a friend of Thomas’s. We played through some songs and just loved how her voice sat in there, so had her sing.
That was kind of a nice effect.
Good, yeah, especially in sort of crowd vocals, I’ve often found that no matter how much the three of us would layer stuff up, it wouldn’t sound like a proper crowd unless you had other voices and specifically female voices in there as well, that just add more of a, more empathy, I think, certainly in say, the end, uh, the end of ‘The End Is Nigh’, when that line, ‘Hold me, it’s coming,’ her voice in there really adds a yearning to that that’s such a heartbreak for me that just wasn’t there without it. She really made that song, I think.
She also sang on ‘Drive-By Summer’, am I right?
That’s right, yeah.
That song, when I first listened to it, I couldn’t figure out what it reminded me of. It reminded me a little bit of the cover you did of ‘I Fought the Law’, that guitar riff is kind of the same.
Yeah, I guess that could have been in there by osmosis.
I wondered about that. I mean, I know you do a lot of covers and some of them have been really interesting. Do you take something from those into your own writing?
Yeah, I would, and a lot of the writing on piano this time round…I don’t, I can’t really play piano, I’ve never, sort of, had lessons, or I didn’t grow up playing piano, so I’ve sort of, I’ve come to it late in life, so that has sort of a naïve, sort of feeling my way around the notes. But I would often, like, instead of sort of staring at a blank canvas, I would play, work out how to play a song. Like, I don’t know, Prince’s ‘Never Take the Place of Your Man’ or…uh…(laughing)
(laughing) Which probably sounded lovely on the piano.
Yeah it is, a lot of his stuff does, I mean it’s the mark of great writing, I think, when you can take big, bombastic numbers or you know even sort of the way Depeche Mode’s writing, I’ve always loved, in that their songs are very sort of you know electro-driven, but at their core, they’re really great, sort of moving, some of them are great, moving songs that you can play quite easily on the piano or acoustic guitar. So yeah, other people’s work’s definitely always been…(laughing) yeah…we have our place in some sort of lineage of stuff and where it’s come from, where it’s going. I wouldn’t deny my, or our, influences in that way.
So, talking about bigger, bombastic numbers, maybe we can talk a little bit about ‘Starlings Over Brighton Pier’. That has a lot of layers to it, but it must have started out with something fairly simple?
Yeah, that sort of cascading piano motif and seeing starlings, or seeing murmurations. I remember seeing it first as a kid, starlings doing that, and being totally sort of enamoured by it. I think as humans, we sort of, we like to sort of read significance into, you know, such sort of natural phenomena that possibly aren’t there, or we see it as this great, um, this great sort of act of solidarity or a sense of the greater good and something sort of being greater than the sum of its component parts, you know in that very sort of lofty way (laughing), and the song, it sort of takes off on that sort of tip. But, you know, they’re probably, I did a little reading on it, and they’re just, they’re protecting, I think they take turns sort of, being on the outside and often it’s so they’re protecting themselves from birds of prey by making those sort of grand gestures and motions.
The song itself turned into kind of a grand gesture. It got kind of big, and I was thinking back to ‘Hey Anna Lena’, and ‘Amelia’, and ‘Bad Skin Day’, those were kind of big songs, so you seem like maybe you’re comfortable writing that way.
Yeah, I think I’ve probably, every record has had a song that filled that slot. Uh, the ones you mentioned, I suppose, and ‘How Your Heart is Wired’, I think, on ‘Blue Lights on the Runway’, would probably fill that slot. And it’s sort of unusual for this record, I suppose. It’s one of the longer songs, and has that sort of ‘start tiny, build, and get sort of big and grandiose’. Whereas with others, you know we were definitely kind of, we steered away from sort of getting too big or multi-layered. I think with this, it just, it felt, with especially what the brass did, it sort of needed to sort of soar in that sense. A lot of it was from the little piano motif and the way the drums sort of spiral around, a lot of the elements were sort of made to convey the sense of birds in murmuration.
But it is, it’s very different from the rest of the songs on the album.
Yeah. Well, the palette is pretty similar, I suppose it’s the only one with a loop. We’ve been trying to sort of get our heads around doing these songs live.
That was going to be one of my next questions, because I understand you are planning to do that.
Yes. Yeah, we’re doing a show here at the National Concert Hall to launch the record, I suppose, and we’re going to do the whole record straight through, and then take an interval (laughing), and then do, uh, the hits. Yeah, it’ll be pretty under the microscope there. We’re going to play with some brass players and we’re going to uh, rehearse (laughing).
(laughing) Yeah, you’ve got some time to do that. But you are planning on doing the full arrangements?
Well, they’ll be live takes on the song, but we want to play with some brass, and we want to sort of, to have that element throughout the whole, or you know, wherever we can for the whole record touring cycle.
Which brings me to my next question…after that, are you planning to tour the album, is that in the works?
Yes, absolutely, yeah. We get to the States, it’ll be October, I believe. So yeah, we’re working on a pretty extensive tour there for this. We’ll be, I suppose, in Ireland and Europe over the summer and then we’ll kick it to doing sort of club shows until the autumn. It won’t be sort of, uh, an easy record to play live, I mean none of them have been, we’ve always had this sort of transition to make from making the record to presenting it live, but we generally don’t try to just replicate the records, I think they’re very different animals and need to be sort of treated as such.
I did notice that, you played a couple of the songs last fall on your acoustic tour, a couple of songs from this album, and they’ve changed a little bit in the album versions.
Yeah, they were the pretty, sort of, bare bones versions on the acoustic tour, so they would have been embellished a little bit, I suppose. We did ‘Careful What You Wish For’ quite a bit, and we did a song called ‘Motorcades’.
That was one of my favorite songs on the acoustic tour, so I’m happy to hear that it made it onto the album, I really liked it.
Good. I mean our problem with that was, because it’s the same chords all the way through, keeping it interesting.
I think you did that in the arrangement, with the brass and the backing vocals.
Good yeah, I mean that was sort of tricky, we had lots of sort of options as to who would play the riff and sort of what point the backing vocals would come in.
Then you have lots of options for when you play it live, too.
Yes, exactly, yeah. Because it works as the three of us with the piano, bass, and drums as well, I think.
It did. I’ll be interested to hear how it evolves a little further, then. I just have one more little question for you. I’ve seen the album artwork for this album, and it was interesting, so I thought maybe you’d want to tell me a little bit about that.
Yeah, um, I have a little boy who’s three, and he loves the work of a guy called Alexis Deacon, particularly a book called Croc and Bird, and I kind of grew to love his stuff as well. We sort of talked about the artwork for this record being a little different and being more, um, less like it came out of a computer, more like something that somebody would make, and being a little more ragged and sort of handmade. And his work just sort of resonated with the period of putting this music together, and so I contacted him. And he was really open to listening to the demos, at that point, and coming up with sort of sketches and having sort of immediate visual responses to the music. And he did, and we met him in London, and sort of traded, it was while we were recording really, he was sort of sending us stuff and we had it in the studio as we were making the music and had it sort of on computers around the room and sort of traded e-mails, and went back and forth, and sort of settled on, he said it reminded him of, the music sort of collectively reminded him of a sort of vague recollection of a trip to a carnival when one was small when, you know, when one was a child, and it being sort of populated by these sort of half-people, half-animal sort of carny characters that have a little, were a little sinister but sort of, um, not in that sort of dystopian sense necessarily, but that had, were sort of more eccentric, kind of man-dog and he needed a snake lady as well. It was all pretty, sort of, trippy. But I’ve often wondered where this sort of resonance comes from, is this something that sort of happens to sort of make sense because they’re sort of thrown together, or whether it actually has true resonance.
I can sort of see it. There are a lot of different things going on in the album, and when I first listened to it, I didn’t quite know what to make of all of them. It really took me a few listens to put them together and make sense of it. So I can sort of see where he might have had that impression. It makes some sense now that I’ve heard you talk about it a little bit.
Right. Yeah, I mean our artwork is something we’ve always thought of as an extension of the music and should have some sort of resonance with it. And we’ve had great luck in sort of contacting people cold, on the internet, and having them sort of come to be friends and collaborate, you know, be it video or art or photography, so it’s a brave new world in that sense, you can go global with these things and not, you know, necessarily look to people you know or have sort of grown up with.
I think that’s kind of how this interview came about. (laughing)
Thank you for taking your time, I’ll let you get back to your evening.
Yes, I’m going to go watch last night’s Game of Thrones. Nice to talk to you, Carrie.
Yes, you too. Good-bye.
Many thanks to Paul for his time, and Kip and Foye for sorting this interview out for us.
Last Monday, I had the opportunity to talk, via Skype, with Paul Noonan of Bell X1 about their forthcoming album, ‘Chop Chop’. Our conversation was kind of a music nerd’s dream-come-true, with a sort of stream-of-consciousness feel as it wandered through the many thought-provoking aspects of the record. (Minor disclaimer: I have edited the transcript slightly, to avoid giving away too many details before the album’s much-anticipated release.)
Hey, Carrie, it’s Paul Noonan.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good, how are you?
I am good, I’m hanging in there. I’m catching you at the end of your day, I think.
You are, it is half past eight here, yeah. I’ve never done this on Skype before. Is this exciting, or is it sort of weird?
I’ve not done this before either, this is new for me, so we’ll see how it works out. I just have a few little questions for you about ‘Chop Chop’.
I guess we should maybe start with the title. It doesn’t really give anything away as far as what the songs are about.
I suppose not, no. It was a title we came up with a long time ago, before we started the record at all, and I suppose it was a mentality shift. We really wanted to do it quickly and not to think about it a whole lot and to sort of, um, to mine a little more instinct and intuition than maybe we’d done before and not sort of second-guess ourselves as much. And become better musicians as well, in terms of just getting stuff… I’ve often talked about this before, I’ve often sort of thought about musicians in, say, the Motown era and how wonderful they were and how quickly they made records because that’s what you had to do, and there was nothing sort of exceptional about it. The standards, I think, have really fallen as technology advanced and as it allowed you to sort of become lazier and lazier. Initially, actually, we wanted to make sort of two short albums, and call one ‘Chop’ and the other ‘Chop’ and then have some kind of a way of connecting them that they would become ‘Chop Chop’. The time from making a record to it actually getting out is often frustratingly long, and often you spend six months or so sitting on a record you’ve made and are burning to get out and play and to bring to people. And so we wanted, initially wanted, to make a record and put it out very quickly and then tour that, and then do that again. The records would be shorter, so they’d take a lot less time to make and we’d have sort of a more, I suppose, immediacy to putting them out. And then, we just, we kind of gave up on that idea because we…sort of evolved through demo-ing stuff into sort of a, what felt like a more substantial single album. We did make it very quickly, and did make it with that sense of, um, I suppose, not talking about things a whole lot, just playing them and communicating through that medium, which was pretty satisfying.
So, the album is finished, though…and it’s not being released until the end of June?
(laughs) Yeah, we are doing the ‘finish the record and then sit on it for months’. Yeah, um, we’ve wanted to record with Peter Katis for a long time, and we have mutual friends in the States who also know Thomas Bartlett, and we’ve known Thomas for quite a while now, so we’ve often talked about working together. He had worked with Peter a lot, sort of on days, you know here and there on various records that Peter had made, and we just got talking about the idea of all of us, you know the five of us, making a record, and it just so happened that everyone was available for only this sort of 3-week period in January, so we had to do it then and sort of get it done. So, yeah, that was very exciting, it was a bit of a blur because it was really…you know, we often take a lot longer to make records. But I am just, I’m really in that sort of frustrated place where I’d love to have it out and for it to be sort of, you know, we have that sort of childish ‘look what I did’ excitement about it. We’re straining at the leash.
I have heard it already, and it’s exquisite, I really do like it. I know a lot of people who are waiting to hear it.
Oh, great, good.
So, you’ve just answered about 4 questions on my list here…(laughing)
No, no, that’s fine. So that’s how you came to Connecticut to record the album. You chose that place, I assume, because that was convenient for everyone in that short time period?
Yeah, that’s where Peter’s studio is. He has a studio on the 3rd floor of his house in Bridgeport. And I suppose America’s always held a certain romance for me, and people are sort of, sometimes, a bit baffled by it, but just the act of going there and traveling the States and going to places like Bridgeport, which on the surface don’t have a whole lot going on. I would imagine making a record in New York City would have a lot more distraction. But even the act of going to the diner, stuff like that, going to the liquor store holds certain romantic notions. So it was kind of, uh, suburban America in its sort of purest form.
So, the album’s not out until June, but you have put out a couple of songs on Soundcloud already.
‘Starlings Over Brighton Pier’ (video here) and ‘Careful What You Wish For’ (stream here), if I’m right?
Yeah, that’s right, yeah.
Have you had a pretty good response to those so far?
I think so, I mean it’s hard to know how people like to consume their music these days. So, I don’t know, it seems like a pretty easy way of getting it out there and for people to pass it around. You know, there was no CDs needed to be printed and again it was part of that idea of sort of not holding stuff for too long. We put out ‘Starlings’ pretty much as soon as we finished it, and I think we’ll put out a few more. There’s sort of, you know, proper, old school singles that are going to be serviced to radio next. It annoys some people, I know, when you leak songs sort of slowly like that, they prefer to hear the record all in one go and for it to have that sort of…have an identity that’s sort of built up by the collection of songs. That’s something that I think we still hold dear, I know it’s a pretty old school notion that an album has an identity and a feeling that’s cohesive in some way and that the song sequencing matters, and even the gaps between songs. As you put a record together, you agonize over stuff like that. But it’s not really how most people consume music anymore, it’s, you know, single songs flicking around from playlist to playlist. I do that myself. I used to love the idea that of when I’d get a record from a band or an artist that I love, of putting it on in a darkened room, really loud, and lying on the floor. I rarely do that sort of singular act of listening to music anymore.
I am sort of an album person myself. I would have preferred to hear the whole thing through, which I now have, but will there be any more teasers like that before the album is released?
Yeah, the first single will be a song called ‘The End is Nigh’.
I wondered if that would be the one. I was thinking about this compared to Bloodless Coup, the single was obvious on that album, ‘Velcro’. On this one, it was a little less obvious. How did you come to choose that?
I think it’s…(laughing) I don’t really know what makes a single, to be honest. We talk to the people who service our stuff to radio, and they felt it was the most likely to get played, and I bow to them, to be honest. There are probably songs I’d prefer, personally, on the record, but I think it ticks all the boxes.
I think, yeah, that song was a little bit Springsteen-ish, it sort of made me think of that.
Yeah, hopefully that’ll be a good single, I just, when I listened through the album, I was thinking about the track sequencing too. Was that important to you as you put it together, did you put it in this order deliberately?
Yes, and it sort of happened pretty organically. Often these things are done, almost by fucking spreadsheet, where after the fact, everyone sort of puts their preferred orders and we sort of aggregate stuff, and fight, and it eventually comes out through some sort of algorithm, whereas with this one, we started listening to the stuff as we were recording it, you know after a day’s work in the studio, we’d go downstairs and have a few drinks and listen to what we had done, and as the songs sort of built up, they just seemed to fall into this order for some reason.
It does have kind of a nice flow to it. Is it agonizing to go back and listen to your own work like that?
Not at all, no, I really enjoyed it. I generally do listen to stuff pretty intensely around the time of making it and in the kind of immediate aftermath. It’s quite a different approach to sequencing I think we’ve done, in that the most ‘pop’ or raucous number is the last song. With most of the other records, it’s been the opposite, it’s been a sort of a gentle closer. That just felt right, I don’t know. (laughing) I think it matters, but most people probably don’t.
The songs ended up flowing pretty nicely. When I first listened, it seemed like kind of an eclectic grouping of songs, you’ve done some different things, stylistically, than I’ve heard you do before.
OK, good. I think a lot of that was down to Thomas. Thomas was, effectively, another band member in the studio. Of all of his, well, I won’t say all, I don’t know him that long, but anything I’ve seen him do, I’ve seen him play with say Antony and the Johnsons, or The National, or Rufus Wainwright, and in Ireland, and I think they’ve made it to the States, he plays with a group called The Gloaming, which is like, I suppose an Irish trad supergroup with him sort of skewing it in a more interesting way. He just…his choices of notes to play at certain times of the song are very distinctive and very…they add quite a…
A little bit of a different flavor.
Yes. Peter would say that he “brings the sad,” in his sort of, the choice of clusters he plays. He’s an amazing musician. He sort of arranged a lot of the brass, which kind of features quite heavily on the record, and that’s quite a sort of defining thing as well.
Yeah, and there was a lot of different percussion, and a lot of keyboard, a lot of piano.
A lot of piano, yeah, a lot of the songs were born on the piano, most of the songs were born on the piano. And the sort of, very naïve sort of repeating motifs that they would have been born around are still there and are still the sort of focus of the song, like with a song called ‘Careful What You Wish For’ or ‘A Thousand Little Downers’, those sort of opening piano motifs were things I came up with here at home or, uh, I can’t really work a lot at home anymore because I’ve got two small kids, so I’ll borrow or rent studios around town or using sort of rehearsal spaces in town. And I have, like, essentially my phone to record a lot of these sort of initial moments, and a lot of that stuff actually, sort of still made it through to the final record.
It’s a different sound for you, it’s a lot less synthetic-sounding.
Yeah, good, good. I’m glad. We were sort of, pretty, again, that was, I suppose, part of the ‘Chop Chop’ mentality, where we would…shrink the palette, was the mantra, often. Ensuring that the record was, that we would sort of be disciplined about sticking to a much narrower palette and get back to, I suppose, our roots in a more, sort of, purist or traditional way—guitar, bass, drums, piano, singing. I don’t know, I feel it’s, I mean I think I’ve always been sort of most proud or excited about our most recent work, but this is, I feel…we didn’t try so hard this time, I think, as in the past, we may have got a little distracted by the new toys, and with this, it feels like we didn’t, and we didn’t feel like we needed to.
Stay tuned for part 2 to post tomorrow!
This interview should have been posted on the site a long while ago (bad editor!) but it got lost in the shuffle while I was sorting out pieces from SXSW 2013. But here it is, our festival liaison and usual Lincoln correspondent, who found himself in Nottingham to catch Sel Balamir of Amplifier before their show in Rock City’s basement that night. (Rock City, if you were wondering, holds a special place in both our hearts now, because we’ve both done interviews in its car park!) Listen to John’s chat with Sel below.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 5th April 2013 at 11:00 am
After The 1975‘s soundcheck at Washington club DC, I was able to nab frontman, singer, guitarist and lyricist (whew, that’s a mouthful!) Matthew Healy for a chat in their dressing room. We talked about how the band started, their many names they went through (there are a lot!), their SXSW experience and the 11 (yes, 11!) shows they played in Austin and much more. Listen to it below.
By Mary Chang
on Friday, 29th March 2013 at 11:00 am
One of the best ‘discoveries’ of mine from SXSW 2013 was guitar band Girls Names from their spiffy appearance at the NI@SXSW showcase on Monday night. I put ‘discoveries’ in quotes, because I really should have heard of them prior to this trip to Austin. No matter though; I’m going to keep a close eye on this Belfast band.
I didn’t think I would be able to find them, as their American PR told me to try and find them at one of their gigs. But I took my chances at showing up at the Music from Ireland breakfast on Friday morning at Irish pub B.D. Riley’s, convinced that I would find at least one hungry Irish band partaking in the free brekky, keen on an interview. After Cathal, Claire and Philip of Girls Names had their breakfast, they kindly answered some questions for me about the lack of punctuation in their name, about their releases to date and much more. I should also mention that we were on the same flight from Austin to Houston Sunday morning, and it was nice I got to see them again and wish them safe travels back to Belfast!
By Mary Chang
on Tuesday, 26th March 2013 at 11:00 am
Kent’s Story Books were one of my great discoveries pre-SXSW as I was preparing the TGTF Guide to SXSW 2013 over Christmas holiday. While there were some conversational gems that weren’t recorded – such as how frontman Kris Harris is an avid cider drinker like myself – there is loads more that was recorded in this interview with Harris, fellow Isle of Sheppey native and drummer Rob Wilks and guitarist Jack Tarrant that we did in the lovely bar area of Blackheart club on Rainey Street Thursday afternoon of this year’s SXSW. Listen to the interview below.